View from the Top: Marketing Lessons from the Virginia Wine Summit

As another year comes to a close, it’s only natural to contemplate the past twelve months, mentally unpacking the highs and lows; reflecting on what worked well, and what did not. What are the accomplishments of the last year, and how can remaining goals be achieved in the next? For Virginia Wine, this year was one for the record books. In 2014, Virginia was praised by Food & Wine Magazine’s Ray Isle, explored by celebrity chef Jose Andres, and the focus of the entire travel section of The Washington Post. But that was just the beginning.IMG_20141021_090853

With more than 20 wineries added to the roster this year, Virginia isgetting noticed; both as a wine destination, and as a new challenger in the ring with the world’s best wines. But how do we capitalize on this momentum? How do we make sure Virginia’s wines out-compete the best from other “lesser-known” regions, like New York and Texas, to claim coveted spots on restaurant wine lists and in online shopping carts across the country? At this year’s Virginia Wine Summit, marketing was a pervasive element of larger conversations about what is working well, and what isn’t. The topic of marketing permeated discussions on expanding grape production, industry best practices, and the branding of Virginia wine.

If you missed the Summit, or are looking for a refresher going into 2015, here are my top five marketing insights from this year’s event:

  1. Winemakers and winery owners need to tell their story.

It’s clear that winemakers and winery owners play a critical role in wine marketing; each one has a unique story to tell, and if you package it properly, it will sell. Customers engage in more than just the wine; they want to understand the back story, get increased access that others don’t, and feel like they’re a part of the inner circle (hello, Social Media!).

  1. PR is worth its weight in gold.

People are tapping into new wine regions and intel every day, and interested imbibers are willing to pay for shipping just to try the hot new recommended wines. Get your wines into print (or video) and you will attract new brand ambassadors and fans. Done and done.

  1. Virginia doesn’t need a signature grape, it needs to keep doing what it’s good at.

There’s been a lot of talk about Viognier ever since the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office designed a marketing campaign promoting “Virginia’s Signature Grape.” There’s no question that Virginia produces a number of excellent Viogniers and that this grape is wrapped in an extra layer of intrigue because it’s not particularly well known among casual wine consumers.

The overall consensus at the Summit, however, was that Virginia is tapping into a number of interesting grape varieties, and stands to benefit from such exploration, building a diverse portfolio of spectacular wines rather than demonstrating a range in quality for one particular grape. Instead of honing in on one grape variety to create its signature character, winemakers are growing what works well for them, including Petit Manseng, Tannat, Petit Verdot, and even Albariño. Virginia will build its reputation for quality on many different grape varietals, so from a marketing perspective, sing the praises of what you’re good at, whether or not it’s Viognier.

  1. If you’re not on Social Media, you’re missing out.

Social is as social does. Let’s face it: social media has changed the way we do business, and that includes the wine industry. Customers expect to reach the brands they like and support when it’s convenient for them, whether voicing a complaint, asking a question, or providing positive feedback. It’s critical to be where your customers are in order to listen, interact, and learn from them. An incredible 65% of consumers make purchasing decisions based on feedback from their peers on social media, and 77% of consumers in a recent Forbes study said they are more likely to buy a product from a brand that is active on social media.

With social staples like DrinkWhatULike’s Virginia Wine Chat on Twitter, and VirginiaWine.org’s Virginia Wine Month, it can be hard to know where to spend your time, but with 82% of consumers indicating they gravitate to businesses that are active on social media, you simply cannot afford to be absent.

  1. If you build it, they will come (your brand, that is).

Here’s the catch: your brand isn’t going to build itself. And as much as you might like to lean on the Virginia wine brand built by the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office and VirginiaWine.Org, your brand needs to be separate and distinct, because you need to tell your story (did you read #1?).

Think of one product or company you really love. Now think about their color scheme, logo, style, and what they stand for. Did they have to tell you these things directly? Most likely not. That’s called branding, and a strong brand will confirm your credibility, connect your target audiences on an emotional level, inspire loyalty, and motivate them to buy from you. But it won’t build itself. The battle for imbibers in the Virginia Wine industry is growing stronger every day, and a strong brand will help you connect with them and make you memorable.

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So there you have it! The Virginia wine industry had a year that would make Jefferson proud. Here’s to tremendous success, both present and future. Cheers!

A California Winemaker Plants Roots in Virginia

At 868 Estate Vineyards, the quest for greatness is about more than just wine. It’s about taking what nature provides, artfully transforming that raw material and packaging expressive wines that, when combined with gourmet food, create a uniquely beautiful sensory experience.

The winemaker behind that quest is Carl DiManno. Unlike most winemakers, DiManno discovered his passion for great food and wine pairings long before diving into the art of winemaking. Attending school in New Orleans, where partaking in decadent, delicious food is as common and frequent as breathing, the concept of using food and wine to create atmosphere and provide artful experiences formed early. That passion found structure when DiManno moved to California and discovered a new level of appreciation for the art of winemaking.

Carl DiManno among his Virginia Vines

Carl DiManno among his Virginia Vines

As it turns out, that appreciation has led to meticulous attention to detail and a careful blending of old world techniques that highlight terrior, with new world practices that help showcase the best characteristics of the fruit. This approach has earned DiManno numerous awards in competitions that pit his creations against well-known labels from California, Europe and South America. These awards have earned his new winery, 868 Estate Vineyards, a significant following and recognition as quality producer of Virginia wines.

Two of 868's award-winning wines

Two of 868’s award-winning wines

Recently, I sat down with DiManno to find out why he’s chosen to put down roots in Virginia (pun intended).

CC: How did you become a winemaker?

DiManno: At one time, I considered buying a vineyard and learning the entire process from growing to bottling on the job. Turns out, vineyards are expensive. But I knew I wanted to be involved in the entire process. Going to school in California was a stepping stone to that. The winemaking program at UC Davis provided a good entree into the industry, but the goal at that point was to own a vineyard/winery. After finishing that program, I learned that winemaker and vineyard manager were important roles to gain perspective on the entire industry.

CC: What do you love most about it?

DiManno: The best part of winemaking is the completed task. To have a finished product in hand, and have people enjoy it is really the most satisfying and rewarding aspect of this role. It represents all the hard work, effort, and the countless decisions that go into crafting that final product.

CC: Is your winemaking philosophy more New World or Old World? Describe it for us.

DiManno: I try to use best practices from both schools of thought, but I suppose my philosophy falls into the New World camp. While there are non-interventionists out there, I am not one of them. I also do not believe in throwing the book at a wine or following a recipe.

Each wine is different and has varying support needs to be the best wine it can be. My job is to do whatever it takes to make that wine be the best it can be. If that means leaving the wine alone and allowing nature to take its course, that is what I will do. If a wine needs finessing in the form of additives, high end filtration, fining, filtering, concentration, blending or whatever, then at is what I will do to put the best product possible in a bottle.

CC: How did you decide to settle in Virginia after starting your career in California?

DiManno: The east is home for me, and I always knew I would end up back here. I also believe that the east coast represented an opportunity that CA could not provide. The wild, wild east had tremendous opportunities to improve, grow, and expand. The chance to affect real change in the quality of wine in the area was really attractive. I had been consulting for a number of labels in California, as well as one or two back east, but an entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and the allure of new vineyards, new wineries and a rapidly expanding wine industry was too much to resist.

CC: Having made wine in both locations, do you prefer winemaking in Virginia or California?

DiManno: A boutique winery in CA is 50,000 cases. There is no way you can do everything yourself or even with a small team. In Virginia, winemaking is much more intimate. You know the fruit. You know the growers personally if you are buying fruit from other vineyards. You get your hands dirty. Winemakers in California often don’t touch grapes. Someone brings them samples of wine and they make winemaking decisions as part of a team from an office. I love the hands-on nature of winemaking in Virginia. When you buy a Virginia wine, you can be very sure that the winemaker actually touched the raw material, and played a significant role in every phase of production.

CC: You have a relatively new vineyard in Virginia. A blank canvas, if you will; how did you decide what to plant, and what is it that you think Virginia does really well?

DiManno: Well, I planted what I like to make (and ultimately drink), and what I think will do well in a particular site. For example, I believe that mid-Atlantic Cabernet Franc a true expression of the varietal, and some of the best Cabernet Franc you can get anywhere. So, of course I planted a lot of Cabernet Franc. Many Francs also benefit from being blended with other varietals, to soften what can be very austere tannins. Complementary grapes such as Merlot and, to a lesser degree, Cabernet Sauvignon provide the blending material to make great Cabernet Franc wines and great blended wines.

I have been very a happy with Dijon clones of Chardonnay, so we have planted some of those. Virginia’s signature grape is Viognier. While we have some Viognier, I am more interested in seeing what else will do well in Virginia soils. Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are experiments. They may do well; they may also prove too unruly to make good wine. Time will tell. Vermentino is another one. It could produce a nicely balanced, lively wine. Maybe it falls flat. Time will tell.

CC: Why should wine drinkers visit Virginia wineries? What is it that makes Virginia different?

DiManno: Most Virginia wineries are small and do not distribute to restaurants, wine shops and grocery stores. If they do, it’s on a limited basis. The best way (and really the only way) to really experience Virginia wine is to go to the wineries. There are some very good and even great wines being made in Virginia. But, they will not come to you for a while. You will have to go to them.

The Virginia is a wine region still in its infancy. Here, you can be part of its growth and experience the changes and improvements that go along with the development of a region and its identity. It is small enough to provide an intimate relationship between vintner and consumer.

CC: What is your vision for 868 Estate Vineyards?

DiManno: 868 will be among the larger wineries in the region, but still small enough that the elements that make it charming are not lost. 868 will produce high quality wine and will have well made wines for every taste and palate.

In 2007, I made a wine that I thought was very good. Not only a good east coast wine, but a good wine at its price point. This wine could compete with any wine from anywhere in the world at its price. That is really my vision for 868: to transcend the VA label. I want 868 wines to compete with wines from all over the world at their particular price point. When I don’t have to hear “this is nice, but I can get a Argentinean Malbec that is just as good for $5” then we will have succeeded.

CC: What is your favorite food and wine pairing?

DiManno: I like Riesling with pork rinds. Actually, Riesling is a good answer. Given the diversity of our region, there are a lot of foods that do not pair well with specific varietals. Mexican, Thai and Indian are difficult pairings. The answer is Riesling. The cool, steely citrus notes of the Riesling provide a refreshing counterbalance to the robust, spicy flavors in those foods. Cabernet with curry is horrifiying; Riesling with curry is a nice night out.

 CC: Of course, inquiring minds want to know… What is your all-time favorite wine?

DiManno: This may be my all-time least favorite question. My favorite wine is whatever you are pouring! I don’t have a perfect answer. I have tried some truly stunning wines. I have also had many wines that were supposed to be stunning that fell flat. And I still have a lot more to try. I have had some Burgundies that were outstanding, but can’t even remember their names.

I tend to fall for dry sparklers. There are very versatile and can be enjoyed every day, since the price of good domestic sparkling wine has come down so much. If I need one for a special occasion, it will probably be Veuve Clicquot.

You can meet Carl DiManno at 868 Estate Vineyards’ upcoming “Meet the Winemaker” event on August 18that the winery in Purcellville, Virginia.